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PLAYERS BY THE SEA THEATRE REVIEW
Jacksonville Beach’s Players by the Sea and The Lazzara Family Foundation present Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA, on stage during July 17 – August 8, 2015.The Disney Company, hoping to attain the success they had with “The Lion King,” produced this musical which is based Verdi’s opera of the same name. Featuring the music of Elton John and Tim Rice, two of the most popular names in show business, it ran on Broadway for over 1,800 performances. Elton John’s fame no doubt was the reason for its success; the critics were often lukewarm. Even if you have never been to one of Elton John’s many concerts , you have probably heard a number of his hit songs, which include “Rocket Man,” “Circle of Life,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “Bennie and The Jets.”
“Aida” has been done for short runs twice in Jacksonville, with the FSCJ Artist Series and at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. It is not done often, probably because the intriguing music requires so many not just good voices, but excellent voices! Let us say now, Players has them in this excellent production.
In case you have never seen Verdi’s opera, the story is that of a love that flourished in a time of hate. During the Prologue, set in modern times, “Every Story is a Love Story,” sung by Sadie La Manna as Amneris, the daughter of Egypt’s Pharaoh (Rob Banks), introduces the theme. She is engaged to the warrior Radames, powerfully played by Devin Reardon. Radames has been engaged to the lovely Amneris for nine years but he prefers fighting military battles to marriage. The marriage was arranged by his father, the contriving and evil Zoser (brilliantly played by JU BFA student Harrison Breault), who has surreptitiously been poisoning the Pharaoh.
Radames and his army return home with a boat loaded with slaves captured during a raid in the nearby country of Nubia. The captives include the beautiful and spirited Aida (Kerri Hicks), who, unknown to the soldiers, is a Nubian princess. Ms. Hicks, who blew the audience away as Joanne in last year’s “Rent,” gives another spine-tingling vocal performance throughout a dozen songs. We especially liked the duets between her and love interest Mr. Reardon.
Radames soon becomes infatuated with his captive and they fall in love; a love that is both forbidden and doomed. Since the plot is based on an opera you can anticipate that tragedy will follow, but we will let you discover the details when you see the show.
The many Elton John ballads advance the plot, and offer this talented cast the opportunity for impressive solos and duets. Willie Beaton II, whom we have seen on stage many times, most recently in “Les Miserables” at Florida School of the Arts, gives a captivating performance as the trusted household slave Mereb. In featured roles were Carol Hardern as Nehebka, Aida’s devoted supporter, and Gregory Hughes as Amonasro, Aida’s father, King of Nubia.
Award Winning Director Bradley Akers has done a marvelous job of directing and casting the major players as well as the magnificent ensemble members who are constantly in motion, dancing and singing, as soldiers, ministers, palace women, and Nubians. They include Michael Fisher, Sara Girard, Kyle Geary, Hector Gonzalez, Brittany Harmon, Brandon Hines, Nichole Ignacio, Christian Mercado, Essence Williams, Eric Yarham and Ashley Yarham.
The minimalist set design by Joe Schwarz included hieroglyphics covering the entire rear wall from end to end. Set pieces were swiftly moved on and off for the 24 scenes and the dramatic light designs by Jim Wiggins did much to enhance the visual experience.
Costume Designers Ash Heffernan and Kenadi Delacerna assembled the many costumes needed for the portrayal of the era, and we were especially impressed with the wonderful gowns worn by the women. Choreographer Nichole Ignacio, in her first experience choreographing a major musical production, worked closely with Director Akers to make scenes vibrant and exciting. And kudos to the Properties Crew, Anna Levin and Jordan Smith, for the long hours devoted to finding the items that brought this story to life.
This is Music Director Zeek Smith’s last engagement in Jacksonville, at least for a while, as he will be departing for a two-year residency at Ithaca College in New York. He is leaving on a high note with a job well done conducting musicians Stefanie Batson (Keyboard, Flutes), Jacob Schuman (Guitar), Damon Martin (Bass), Greg Hersey (Drums), and Dylan Staley (Percussion). He will be missed throughout our theatre community.
The polished presentation you see on stage would not have flowed as smoothly as it appeared without the work of the Stage Manager (Sara Bryant) and Assistant Stage Manager (Elizabeth Reeger).
Avail yourself of the opportunity to see a unique musical, in the intimate setting of Players by the Sea. Be sure to read the Director’s Notes and the comments of Holly Gutshall, Resident Dramaturg in the program. For reservations, call 904-249-0289 or see playersbythesea.org.
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